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9th Wonder The Wonder Years Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A producer worth celebrating, justly compared to J Dilla, DJ Premier and Pete Rock.

Ele Beattie 2011

"I don't think we decide our own legacy. People gonna decide that for you, you have no control over that." So muses the under-celebrated producer 9th Wonder on the opening of The Wonder Years. What initially appears as a disclaimer for this long-awaited solo masterpiece – it was originally due in 2008 – is quickly overwritten with the straight-forward Make It Big. On the mic as his alias 9thmatic, in between chimes of "I'mma make it big", he gives a history lesson in the beats, rhymes and life of 9th. Charting his rise from the early days of jamming to Public Enemy at high school, to being picked up by Jay-Z, to winning a Grammy with Mary J Blige, to producing for Erykah Badu and Common, each rung of the ladder is reinforced by his sumptuous trademark soul samples and self-propelled loops. It’s not simply a retrospective affair, but a calling card illustrating why this beat-maker wears a crown on his album cover.

Full-time producer, part-time professor of a course entitled 'Hip Hop in Context', 9th never strays too far from the role of educator. Reuniting with his fellow Little Brother member Phonte on the crooning Band Practice Pt 2, we're informed that "this is blackboard rap". On Enjoy, a track full of West Coast bounce, he unites three generations of MCs: Warren G talks of classics and demands respect for the trigger finger; Murs reflects on growing up in a time before Ustream; and the fresh-faced Kendrick talks babysteps. 9th's mix of experienced and fledging vocalists (who refer to girls as ‘Bonita Applebum’ and ‘Miss Spottieottie’, and reminisce about first hearing Big Daddy Kane and Biggie) combined with his heritage samples serves to reinstate hip hop as a genre concerned with head-nodding: both literally, physically, and by continually acknowledging its ancestors.

At the mercy of his tender beats even the toughest of thugs, like Wu-Tang's Masta Killa, are reduced to writing heartfelt love songs around a hook of "You're the type of girl I've been dying to meet." After all, as Mac Miller reveals on That's Love, "This ain't a song about cars and drugs / Even gangster motherf***ers fall in love." But listen between the lines and these amorous relationships could extend to the dynamics between producer and vocalist. "When I'm without you I'm cool / But I'm so much better with you," sing the honeyed tones of ex-Floetry vocalist Marsha Ambrosius on the jam Peanut Butter & Jelly, reminding us that this would be a very different album if the focus was on 9th's instrumentals alone.

Justly compared to J Dilla, DJ Premier and Pete Rock (all of whom he cites as inspirations), 9th's achievements should have already cemented his legacy. It would be a shame if, like Dilla, he only receives the recognition he deserves when he's not around to bask in it.

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